COVID-19 Communications for Senior Housing Facilities

Building Long-Term Trust

January 12, 2021

The pandemic may end in 2021, but the need to communicate continues

Which senior housing facilities can honestly say they were ready to handle communicating with patients, staff and the outside world about the effects COVID-19 is having?

The pandemic hit the United States hard and fast, and even with a “dip” during the summer of 2020, it has remained a hugely dangerous problem, particularly for the most vulnerable of our population who are living together, in close quarters, with other vulnerable adults and front-line health care workers.

Several vaccines have been approved, but are not yet getting to the people who need them nearly as fast as they should. According to the experts, a viable vaccine plus continuing to practice social distancing and wearing a mask in public places will potentially result in a return to reasonable normalcy sometime in third quarter of 2021.

In the meantime, senior housing facilities need to continue communicating what’s happening within their walls. We’ve gathered a few key rules and best practices from our clients to help everyone do the best job possible of communicating important information.

Four fundamental communication best practices

  1. Create a team and choose one point of contact for the press

    To avoid confusion, mixed messages and possibly major problems, create simple communication protocols for your facility. That includes defining exactly who should talk on your behalf. Assigning that task to one point of contact — someone with authority and responsibility such as an administrator or marketing director — is the most efficient and effective strategy.

    That said, you’ll need other members of your communications team who are empowered to speak for the facility if and when the lead contact is not available. Your communication team can consist of staff as well as professional public relations experts, if possible.

    Once you have all that in place, make certain to communicate to the rest of your staff that they are not to speak to the media if they’re contacted. They should immediately connect reporters with the lead contact or one of the assigned communications team members.

  2. Get out in front of the story or it will control you

    When the pandemic began, some senior care facilities thought that disclosing COVID-19 cases would cause undue harm to the operations. But many quickly learned that telling the story — with full transparency — helped the press, and therefore the public, to better understand what was actually going on.

    If news outlets or reporters are asking for statements or updates, provide one. Don’t assume that “no news Is good news.” Senior care facilities that respond with ”no comment” often end up with articles written about their facility anyway. With a lack of knowledge, reporters can create a narrative that there is a cover-up and that can lead to implications of poor quality of care.

    Proactively reach out to reporters to have a conversation, especially when something occurs that could have a negative effect. The issue doesn’t even have to originate in your facility to trigger a communication with a reporter. For example, when the state issues a report on number of confirmed COVID cases or deaths as a result of the coronavirus, your facility needs to reach out and make sure journalists and the public clearly understands what you’ve been doing to keep patients safe and secure. If the news isn’t good, better to deal with it now and openly instead of letting someone else control the narrative.

    The key is to provide clarity rather than risking misinterpretation or misinformation.

  3. Communicate early and often: People want to hear from you

    Even with the promise of what vaccines will do to end or at least minimize the pandemic, this is still a scary time for vulnerable residents and their families. It’s also still frightening for your staff, many of whom are potentially exposed on a daily basis and are, frankly, exhausted.

    So, early and frequent communication to residents, families and employees is essential. Many of our clients that experienced an outbreak called every resident’s family member to explain the situation, and then followed-up in writing. They described what happened and explained the immense amount of federal, state and CDC precautions the facility had taken along with what is currently being done, including quarantining, testing, personal protective equipment and more to keep everyone safe.

    Other forms of communication can be statements on the facility website as well as follow-up emails and social media, as long as you develop a dedicated approach to it.

    One communication tool you may want to avoid is the use of automatic messaging services (“robocalls”). Besides the impersonal nature and its association with spam messaging, it has also been known to generate an abundance of inbound phone calls from residents’ families as they try to figure out what’s going on or to complain about the use of the tool.

    Messages to everyone involved should be highly empathetic and should invite everyone to ask questions so they’re comfortable with the answers. We have clients who spend an average of fifteen minutes each week on calls with family members to answer questions and put their minds at ease.

    Another group you can’t ignore are the stakeholders and investors, including ownership if your facility is part of a larger organization. Transparency is equally important to them, allowing them to gauge the severity of a COVID-19 issue in their portfolio as well as giving them information they can use in their own communications.

    Keep in mind a huge trigger for multiple claims after an incident occurs is anything that looks like a lack of transparency or trying to keep the situation ‘quiet’.  Whoever makes or answers the calls should take notes on the conversation to document what a family member is asking, and how they responded to the answers.  Ultimately, empathy and  clear communication will keep that family member from seeking out, or responding to a lawyers insinuation that there was malpractice or negligence.

    That’s why you need to communicate regularly with everyone with as much transparency as possible, to build trust with residents, families, media, stakeholders and the public in general.

  4. Make friends with the media to help shine the light in the right places

    A major complaint from senior living facilities during the pandemic has been that media outlets often have difficulty understanding or appreciating the full story. They want to ensure that they’re warning the public about where infections are occurring and erroneously portray every senior living facility as overflowing with COVID-19 cases.

    Many of our clients have then sought out news media outlets that will tell a ‘success story’ of the facility so that they are also getting positive publicity from a friendly news outlet. Many will contact organizations such as LeadingAge to quickly help write and publish success stories taking place at the facility.

    Give the media the opportunity to talk with employees that have gone above and beyond to display extraordinary quality of care. Then, the facility can share these articles with residents’ family members.

    We’re not suggesting “using” the media to your advantage, but rather to develop a co-operative relationship that helps more accurately deliver information about what is happening.

How Marsh & McLennan Agency can help

MMA can work with you to develop strategic plans and help you find the right professionals to work with as well as determining who on your staff is best qualified to speak on your behalf. Our experts can point out areas of risk and possible liability concerns that you can ameliorate or prevent by communicating more effectively.